The Courts in a Nutshell


The Origin of the Courts

The Constitution of the United States created one court:  the Supreme Court. We also have systems of federal and state courts. Read the beginning of Article III of the Constitution and answer the following question:


To whom does the Constitution give the power to create other federal courts as needed?

Jurisdiction of the Courts

Jurisdiction is a big word that means the authority to hear certain cases. Some cases should go to federal courts and some cases should be heard by state courts. So how does one decide which is which? There are rules already set up for us! State courts are responsible for cases that deal with state law or settling disputes between people who live in that state. Federal courts deal with national law, interpreting the Constitution, and settling disputes between people from different states. There are definitely other things that state and federal courts cover - those are just the big ones!  Click the link under the picture for a more thorough list.


State Courts Structure

State courts can be a little confusing because there are so many states! Each has its own court system with different names for each court. There is a basic structure though!  Most states have minor courts. These courts handle things like petty crimes and arguments over property.  Examples of these courts include traffic courts, divorce courts, and juvenile courts. General trial courts have many names and sit just above minor courts. They hear more serious cases including severe crimes and civil disputes.

Finally, all states have an appeals court. Cases that have already been decided in general trial courts or minor courts can be heard by the appeals court. This includes the highest court of each state, which reviews rulings that have to do with state constitutions. Often a state's highest court is called the Supreme Court, but not always! In some states the highest court is called the Court of Appeals. 

Federal Courts Structure

Just like the states, the federal court system has levels of courts. All across the United States there are 94 district courts. These district courts serve the federal court system as the general trial courts for all federal cases, civil or criminal. If your case is lost in the district courts you can bring it for review in the court of appeal for your circuit (or region). There are only 13 federal courts of appeal that hear all the appeals from district courts.


The Appellate System

Why do we need so many types of courts on so many different levels? Well, that’s because we have what is known as an appellate system. If you were to lose a case in a trial court and you felt the ruling was unfair you might appeal the case. That means you would take it to the court above the trial court that has appellate jurisdiction. After you have worked your way “up” the courts, the last place for you to go is the United States Supreme Court.


The Supreme Court

The Supreme Court is the head of the judicial branch of government, and was created directly by the Constitution. There are nine judges on the Supreme Court called justices, and they hear cases that are related to federal law or the Constitution. Justices are appointed by the President and approved by the Senate, and they hear cases together and then vote on the outcomes.